Confronting the “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

A a political refrain and mantra from the “no excuses” reform movement, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has resonated among many stakeholders in education.

As Education Week has reported, a new report seems to confirm that among vulnerable populations there is a significant concern about low expectations for black and brown children (and likely among poor, English language learner, and special needs children as well).

The problem with the “low expectations” claim, however, is that the political and education reform use of the slogan is dishonest and misleading, while the new report offers an excellent reframing of how significant and important the concern is.

The “no excuses” movement has positioned the public against schools and teachers serving vulnerable populations as simply not trying hard enough, thus “low expectations.” Concurrently, vulnerable students themselves have been characterized as lacking “grit,” not trying hard enough.

In that vacuum created by politicians and reformers, education policy has increasingly demanded less and less of schools, teachers, and those vulnerable students by increasing the standards and testing focus of education.

The great and disturbing irony of the “no excuses” and “low expectations” movement is that test-prep is cheating black/brown students, poor students, ELL students, and special needs students of challenging educations—while mischaracterizing the ways in which traditional schooling has failed those students historically.

Is there a problem among progressives and white, middle-class teachers who view black/brown and poor students through paternalistic and reductive/deficit lenses?

Yes, there absolutely remains a failure among too many educators who lack a culturally responsive view of teaching, who remain trapped in deficit ideologies such as the “word gap” and a need for “other people’s children” to have basic skills (see the work of Lisa Delpit).

And even more troubling is that among many educators, there is a problem with distorted “high expectations” about discipline, resulting in the criminalization of black and brown children in our schools.

Therefore, I am in no way discounting that there exists a “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but I am rejecting the use of that slogan among “no excuses” reformers who push for racist and classist high-stakes testing as gate keepers and for the expansion of segregating charter schools that increase harsh and racist discipline policies also found in traditional public schools.

New Education Majority: Attitudes and Aspirations of Parents and Families of Color offers a chance for education advocates to reconsider the sloganification of education reform, and to listen to the exact vulnerable populations many “Superman” and “miracle school” saviors (most of whom have no education background, but so have paternalistic missionary zeal) claim to be serving.

The reality of low expectations for vulnerable populations of students include the following:

  • Underfunding and inequitably funding schools serving vulnerable populations of students.
  • Failing to address teacher certification and years of experience for schools and courses serving vulnerable populations of students.
  • Continuing to allow gatekeeping to track “other people’s children” into test-prep while white and affluent students have inequitable access to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and gifted programs.
  • Masking student/teacher class ratios behind school averages while vulnerable populations of students sit in large classes in the same schools where white and affluent students benefit from low ratios (typically in those AP, IB, and gifted courses).

The problems we continue to ignore in society and education are anchored in race and class inequity: being white and affluent continues to heap tremendous benefits while being of color and poor is a stunning and often inescapable burden.

Those inequities, as well, cannot be overcome by school-only reform policies, particularly when the most popular reforms are themselves perpetuating race and class inequity.

If parental choice and the market place matter (more refrains you hear among the “no excuses” crowd), why do we ignore that the most affluent parents in the U.S. tend to choose private schools with rich curricular options (including a wide array of the arts), low student/teacher ratios, and a glaring absence of test-prep, standards-based coursework?

The answer isn’t pretty: the “no excuses” reform movement is not about the best interests of vulnerable populations of students or vulnerable communities, but about their own investments in education reform.

As I have noted before, we must not trust advocates invested in education reform at the expense of the children and communities those reforms claim to serve.

We must, instead, begin to listen to vulnerable populations who are suffering the negative consequences of race and class inequity, advocates of children and communities.

It is among the “we” who are privileged to listen and then act to create both social and educational policy from an equity of opportunity perspective and not an accountability perspective that further marginalizes children and communities who need our public institutions the most.

6 comments

  1. Pingback: Confronting the “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations” — the becoming radical – musnadjia423wordpress
  2. Bernard Shuford

    Very complicated situation. As the husband of a teacher who teaches students who require special help in a “low income” area, it’s entirely frustrating, in general. And all the testing SUCKS.

  3. Mike Barrett

    I agree with almost everything you say however you sometimes seem to leave no room for nuance. I taught at a well funded highly rated High School that still has a large achievement gap even between well off minorities and well off whites. Our school addresses all of the bullet points that it can, including detracking (through a program of earned honors credit) and recruiting minorities into AP and gifted classes. The “inescapable burdens of poverty and color,” make it impossible for schools alone to completely close the gap, however we do better than most.

    Some misuse of good ideas does not mean that there is no proper use of them. For example it is possible to recognize the “inescapable burdens,” but still encourage growth mindsets over fixed mindsets, persistence over despair and resilience over apathy. Teachers and schools are still blamed for not doing enough. We must put ourselves in the position of doing everything that we can while knowing that without external actions to address the consequences of race and class inequity it won’t be enough— without using that as an excuse to do less than we should.

  4. Liam

    The adoption of civil rights and social justice language is perhaps the most nefarious aspect of the corporate education reform movement.

  5. Pingback: Resisting Fatalism in Post-Truth Trumplandia: Charter Schools and the End of Accountability by Garn Press Author Paul Thomas - Garn Press

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